The Iron Ministry


Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

Iron Ministry
"The Iron Ministry moves beyond the observational to the experiential, which is to say that sound and image come together to put us among the passengers rather than simply watching them from a distance."

An alumnus of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL for short), JP Sniadecki constructs a portrait of modern China - and an immersive viewing experience - via an exploration of the Chinese railways. This train journey (actually multiple journeys - filmed between 2011 and 2013 - edited together) starts in darkness, with the first three minutes accumulating a soundscape of train couplings, the squeal of machinery and metal on metal, and the eventual rhythmic judder of a train in motion, over a black screen. The first visuals to appear are abstract close-ups of the materiality of the train - the actual nuts, bolts, fabrics and seams of the machine - and the expanding and contracting sections that connect the carriages recall the rise and fall of breaths in a ribcage: the iron beast heaves with life.

The emphasis that these opening moments place on the audio-visual - the layering of the sound (designed by the Lab Manager of SEL, Ernst Karel), the frequently abstract nature of the imagery, and how they combine to sometimes enthralling effect - signal that The Iron Ministry will move beyond the observational to the experiential, which is to say that sound and image come together to put us among the passengers rather than simply watching them from a distance. However, a further four minutes pass before we see any people and it will be more than 18 minutes before subtitles begin to appear - although Sniadecki listens in on a number of interesting conversations, there is the sense that the passengers are just one more aspect of the train(s), a facet of what the railway can reveal about China rather than the prime focus.

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The candidness of some of the conversations raises the question of how aware people were that they were being filmed - was the camera visible? While there are certain sequences where the angle of shots suggests that the camera was on display - for example, when Sniadecki follows the trolley service down the aisle of a packed carriage, the camera is at one point raised so as to see over the head of the vendor - and instances where the person on camera acknowledges it (as when the railway employee is happily expanding on the bad old days of the service until he thinks to ask whether the camera also records sound), there are other occasions when people appear too relaxed to be fully cognisant of the recording.

The conversations offer enlightening viewpoints on contentious issues including migration and emigration, Tibet and the unstoppably expanding railway, the position of minorities, problems with housing prices, and the need for the Party to listen to the people more. The latter two issues are discussed by three jovial and articulate young men (a fourth watches in wary silence) as they detail the impossibility of buying property, the way subsidised housing is given to those with connections, and the unlikelihood of effecting social change when they are not allowed to vote. They are touchingly caught between the idealism of youth and the cynicism of experience - on the one hand arguing that in the end you have to trust in the Party, but also that there need to be material benefits for all in order for the social order to change ("So, if there are steamed buns for all, there'll be no revolution?").

Those in-between states and the equivalent physical spaces are the positions that Sniadecki's camera seeks out, lurking with the smokers chatting in those narrow spaces between carriages - and, of course, the whole film takes place in the interstitial space of trains en route to unspecified destinations. The director also frequently returns to images of passengers in liminal states as they drop in and out of sleep, unconscious to the physical world around them until woken by officious ticket inspectors. Just as the lights the train passes in the dark fleetingly illuminate the interiors, the speed of the trains implicitly points to the temporary nature of these onboard states.

The sense of the in-between goes beyond the unnamed destinations - we are given no specifics of geographic location, direction or time (it takes a while to realise that we are seeing different journeys and trains edited together). Does this give the film's depictions the colour of a universal representation, a Whitman-esque "I contain multitudes", or could something more revealingly incisive have been constructed with clearer contextualisation?

The Iron Ministry succeeds in adhering to the SEL spirit of producing aesthetic experience, reflecting an everyday experience rather than giving the impression of 'understanding' it - Sniadecki has created an immersive and engrossing film, and despite the lack of contextualisation the film nonetheless functions as a window into China. The film ends much as it begins, but in reverse - with abstract flashes of light in the dark giving way to thunderous sound.

Reviewed on: 13 Jun 2015
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A portrait of China, experienced through its vast and expanding railway.

Director: J P Sniadecki

Year: 2014

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: China, US

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